People aged 65 years or older are especially prone to heat-related health problems. Why? Older adults don’t adjust as well as young people to sudden changes in temperature. Older adults are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat. They are also more likely to take prescription medicines that affect the body’s ability to control its temperature or sweat. Very high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs.
If elderly loved ones are living at home, what can you do to keep them comfortable and cool when temperatures soar? We posed this question to Carolyn Lechner, one of the elder care coordinators at the Kabb Law Firm, a Life Care Planning Law Firm in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Carolyn has spent more than two decades working with seniors and their families—in all kinds of weather.
- Encourage them to stay indoors, preferably in air conditioning. If your loved one’s home doesn’t have air conditioning, contact your local health department or locate an air-conditioned shelter in your area.
- Keep them hydrated. This advice may seem obvious, but elders dealing with subtle cognitive changes don’t always remember to do things that were once second nature. “An elder might be feeling uncomfortable and not know what to do about it,” says Carolyn. “Self-care initiative often diminishes, and elders don’t realize that they could get a glass of water or adjust the thermostat.”
- Check in frequently. Do this by phone or in person to make sure they are comfortable. If you’re not able to visit, ask a neighbor to look in on them. The person who stops in should automatically get the elders something to drink. “Don’t ask, just do it,” Carolyn counsels.
- Pay attention to the windows. Keep summer heat out by closing blinds and shutters during the day. If your loved one likes the windows open at night to catch cool breezes, make sure that they close the windows in the morning.
- Watch the climate control system. If your loved one has air conditioning, make sure that he or she knows how to operate the thermostat. Cognitive decline can make this a challenge, especially if the older adult views the thermostat as something to play with. “You can ask them to keep the temperature in a certain range, but it they can’t or won’t, you may need to restrict access to the thermostat in order to keep them safe,” she advises.
- Limit stove and oven time. Don’t use the stove or oven to cook. It will make the house that much hotter. Instead, keep food light and simple. Cool salads are always a good idea.
- Stress cool showers or baths. If your loved one is complaining about being too warm and the climate control system is functioning properly, a cool shower or bath, or a cold wet washcloth on the forehead or the neck may help them feel better. “Remind your loved one that baths or showers don’t have to be scalding hot to get a body clean,” Carolyn says.
- Head to the mall. Many YMCAs sponsor Silver Sneakers programs at malls. “This can be a great place for seniors to walk, connect with peers, and escape the heat,” notes Carolyn.
Heat-related illnesses are entirely preventable. With a little knowledge, you can keep your loved ones safe no matter how hot it gets.